You Already Bugged Your Own House Years Ago

If you're unnerved at the prospect of an always-on mic in your home, then take a second to consider the ones that are already there

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Yesterday, Apple announced the HomePod, a smart speaker in the style of the Google Home and Amazon Echo. Like those competing devices, it is voice-activated. Shout out "Hey Siri" and it will respond. This is a cool bit of modern convenience. But, unavoidably, it also means that these machines are listening. All the time.

Apple insists its device is not transmitting any data unless you've said those magic words. Google and Amazon promise pre-wake word privacy as well. Even so, there's a certain reaction that bubbles up every time a new one of these listening machines appears—you'd have to be crazy to put one in your home.

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Yes, be skeptical! Be jealous of your privacy! But also honest with yourself: You'd also have to be crazy to believe this is the tipping point. We're already in the deep end on this one.

When it comes to in-home privacy, there are all kinds of concerns that run the paranoia gambit. On the extreme end, you've got the CIA exploiting your TV to spy on you, or hackers cracking into your webcam. These are very possible, but they're also very specific—something you do when you've got a target in mind. If you think people are spying on you this way, then throw out your TV, tape over your webcams, and live inside a Faraday cage. Good luck.

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As opposed to that sort of cloak-and-danger intrigue, always-on smart speakers offer low-key potential for privacy invasion that's limited in approach but vast in scope. What if the microphones in your home are listening for keywords, like brand names, and using them to build a dossier on you and serve you ads? Either on purpose, or because some app or services is being sketchy behind the scenes.

We're already in the deep end on this one.

If you've ever had that uncanny moment where you mention a brand out loud and then see an ad for it on social media hours later, you may be a little suspicious any mics in earshot already. It's happened to me at least half-dozen times, each time a different brand. Maybe it's coincidence! But even if the eavesdropping isn't happening, it certainly could happen.

Facebook and Google and Amazon swear up and down they are not doing this, but it wouldn't be impossible. Apple, it's worth noting, is actually probably the least likely to do such a thing. While Google and Facebook make money on ads and Amazon on commerce, Apple makes money on selling its hardware, putting it in a unique position to promote privacy a way no others can because it serves no other masters. The iOS Messages app is end-to-end encrypted. Apple's gone to bat for privacy before and it promises nothing gets sent from HomePod until you say the words, that conversations are encrypted by default. Which, while Apple stressed this point in particular, is actually the standard for these types of devices.

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Even if the HomePod is pure, it skyrockets the always-on mic to new levels of ubiquity, making always-on mics a more accepted part of the average household. Compromise could come to different devices, and in many forms: soup-to-nuts conspiracy, sketchy apps, hacked hardware.

Demonizing smart speakers is easy because the fix is simple. If you don't want a tech giant's device listening to everything you say, then don't one, or unplug the one you have! My Google Home sits unplugged on the kitchen counter for this very reason—and I'll admit it gives me a sense of relief.

My Google Home sits unplugged on the kitchen counter.

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But it shouldn't. Because what about the rest of the mics all around? As with these smart speakers, your phone or tablet has a microphone designed for some sort of "always-on" mode so you can shout "Hey Siri" or "OK Google" to wake it up. Assume that tech is secure and you've still got apps like Facebook that can take control of your microphone while open, for good reasons like recording audio for video clips but perhaps also to listen to you talk (Facebook, obviously, denies it does this.) If you suspect that a smart speaker might be listening when it shouldn't be, why not your trusty phone? You don't get to fear one but not the other just because it is convenient.

So should you downgrade to a dumbphone? Gum up your phone's mic with putty? Leave it in the refrigerator like a wannabe Edward Snowden? I'm not about to do any of those because just because I have a hunch that my phone, or one of the apps on it, could use its mic to listen to me. I like my phone. I need my phone.

This doesn't mean that all hope is lost and you should just give up and buy that smart speaker because and hand over all your browsing data to your ISP because there's no protecting your privacy from Silicon Valley. What it does mean, however, is that if you are serious about your privacy beyond using it to make a cheap joke, the actual solutions will not be simple or seamless, and for the time being, they're not even clear. Despite any skittishness about this new style of mic, we've already conceded to surrounding ourselves with ears that admittedly listen, and that we've no choice but to trust. What now?

if you are serious about your privacy beyond making a cheap joke, the solutions will not be simple or seamless.

Maybe it's all fine. Perhaps the people who control those microphones behind the scenes—app designers and hardware makers all—are worthy of our trust, if not forever than at least for now. Maybe the gains are worth the risk. It's certainly comforting to think so! But maybe the Big Privacy Wakeup Call just hasn't come yet. You know, the inevitable and large-scale hack of advertising dossiers that spills embarrassing details collected on the sly out to the internet at large. Think the Ashley Madison hack, meets the Sony Hack meets the "Celebgate" iCloud hacks, but with millions of victims, one of which is you. Or even just smoking gun report that, yes, someone really is listening to more than they say they are.

It's easy to dismiss all this as a fanciful cyberpunk thought experiment. For the time being, it is. But there is an uncomfortable and jagged truth at its core: If you reflexively recoil at the thought of an always-on microphone sitting on your counter, don't just stop there. Interrogate that discomfort. Figure out how far its tendrils really spread, even if—especially if—they might go a fair bit further than you'd really like to admit. The longer you wait, the farther they will go.

From: Popular Mechanics